From College Strength and Conditioning to Starting Strength Denver: A Strength Coach’s Journey

by Jared Nessland, SSC | December 18, 2019

jared nessland with a group of athletes in the weight room

There’s a couple of people I owe a beer or two And three or four that I owe more than a few. For all the times I couldn't find the answers. Stumbling through the dark without a clue, this one's for you.
Mom and Dad always did their best, for a crazy fool who couldn't help himself. I thank God that they were there to see me through. This one's for you.
I told you all that I'd write you a song. Pour my heart into the melody, to keep you singing along. This might not be the right time, these might not be the right lines to prove. For saying what I'm trying to, but this one's for you.
“This One’s For You” – Luke Combs

Well, an article will have to do. I am generally not a very sentimental person, and tend to not look back and reminisce. However, today I am packing up to move to a new job, and leave a profession that has been the center of my life for the past 20 years. Up to this point, it is all I have ever wanted to do. This will be the 7th out-of-state move since I started coaching in 1999. And I start reflecting. Why? Because of a storage bin out on the patio, that has not been opened since I moved to this apartment over 7 years ago. It contains a bunch of junk and is half-full of books. The book that makes me start to contemplate things is a torn, marked up, highlighted-on-every-page book with a black cover and yellow text called Starting Strength: A Simple and Practical Guide For Coaching Beginners by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore. I remember purchasing this book around 2006, and little did I know at the time the effect this $30 dollar purchase on Amazon would have on me, or that it would literally change the course of my career and ultimately my life. First, a little on how we got to this point.

The College Years and Coach Tuds

I was a decent enough thrower in High School to a win a state championship in the discus.  I had an excellent coach, and I was technically very sound. I was a mediocre shot putter, mostly due to my strength levels. This led to an invitation to walk-on to the Track and Field team at Montana State University.  My experience with strength coaches there was less than impressive. I think I had 4, maybe even 5, strength coaches in my 5 years in school. They ranged from average to awful for the first 4 years of my career. I remember watching the football team rep-maxing on the Hammer Strength Leg Press, with a spotter.  Coaches and athletes screaming and yelling at each other, the spotter basically doing max effort bent over rows, and the poor kid that was doing the exercise having to get carried out because he hyperextended his knee. I knew that was bullshit and that the atmosphere was fake long before I even knew what I did not know! I was a lousy collegiate thrower, poor levers and piss weak. Through a lot of hard work I got up to a 500 squat, 370 bench, 157kg clean, 110 snatch and was able to earn a tuition scholarship at the end of my career. This began my appreciation for the weight room, and what it can do.  

My senior year, we got another strength coach. Great, another clown probably. I was in town for the summer and I heard he just arrived, so I went to the weight room to meet him. Brett Tudsbury comes in for his first full-time job from Washington State. I went in, and here was this little dude doing clean & jerks with more weight than I'd seen lifted in that room the previous 4 years. I start lifting with him that day, and ended up spending more time in the weight room that year than I did in class or at track practice. 

He was the first strength coach I had that truly cared about us. He treated us the same or better than if we were football players. He probably spent way more time with us than he was paid for, got to know us on a personal level, came to our events, and introduced us to his family. He also knew his stuff inside and out, and he was constantly learning and trying new things. It was then that I decided I wanted to be a strength coach. I am still proud to call him a mentor and a friend. Thanks, Tuds! Actually, I do not know if I should thank him or MF him for getting me into this crazy field. He got smart and got out a long time ago, and is now a successful realtor (he didn't teach me that part). 

Team Montana and Steve Gough

Later that summer Coach Tuds asked me if I want to do some Olympic lifting. I said to myself, why not?  We started being coached by Coach Tudsbury’s coach, and, it turned out, one of the finest (if not the best, in my book anyway) Olympic lifting coaches in the country. Steve Gough has coached countless national champions; his son even lifted in the Atlanta Olympics (Yes, we used to have male Olympic lifters make the Olympics!).

You wouldn't know by looking at him – Steve was an older, gray-haired, beat-up dude. Working with he and Tuds was some of the most fun I ever had lifting weights, albeit far and away the hardest. We were indoctrinated into the Steve’s version of the Bulgarian System of training: Snatch, Clean, or Clean & Jerk, and Squat, every day, 6 days a week, up to a max. We'd go back down, work back up, and repeat, often several times during the workout, sometimes even twice a day depending on our schedule. One of my early workouts with Steve is still memorable. I went back and counted, and it still sticks in my mind: I did 27 sets of snatch, working down and back up several times. I'm not sure how many PRs I set, but I remember tearing 9 callouses. Most lessons you learn the hard way (hand care, for example). This is when I learned of the body’s incredible ability to adapt.

Steve may be the finest coach I ever met during my coaching career. I do not remember much in the way of technical coaching from him (I remember Tuds being the technician). However, he was the master mind coach. If a lift is in there that day, he can get it out of you. His presence was felt. You would run through a wall for the man because you don't want to disappoint him. You would do anything to make that lift, and he would do anything to get it out of you.  

Steve and Tuds formed a club Olympic lifting team with myself, a teammate or two, and some of the strength and conditioning assistants and interns. I trained all year around my track and field duties, though I did not do a jerk the whole year due to an injury. I also interned in the weight room to get some experience. We ended up competing in the USAW Collegiate National Championships in none other than Wichita Falls, Texas; Rip and Lon Kilgore were the meet directors. The meet was in June, a couple weeks after track season ended and a few after graduation. Tuds took 5 of us in a minivan, and we drove from Bozeman, Montana to Wichita Falls, Texas.  It was one of the best trips of my life, something I will always remember (the details probably need to be left out of the article). Oh, but Team Montana won the title! You could tell the influence Steve and Tuds had on their athletes, as 3 of the 5 went on to become Head Strength Coaches at the collegiate level. Thanks, Steve. Your influence on me was more than you probably knew. Those lifting sessions are still some of my fondest weight room memories. 

To the Coldest Place on Earth

I moved home for the summer and went to work for the public school district. I knew I wanted to be a strength coach, but I didn't have anything going yet. In August, I saw a posting for a Graduate Assistant position at the University of North Dakota. I applied, got a call, got an interview, and then I was packing up and driving to Grand Forks, North Dakota 3 days later to work for Paul Chapman (one of the several times that I’ll pack up and move in less than a week). Despite the fact that Grand Forks, North Dakota is the Coldest Place on Earth, my time working for Chappy, as everyone calls him, was one of the highlights of my career. He contributed to my development by throwing me into the fire and letting me coach and learn on my own, but he was always there to listen, guide, lead, and support. He was a squat, bench, and clean guy, so that certainly helped the direction of my career. He never got too high or too low, or took himself or anything too seriously. What a valuable lesson for a young coach, especially knowing some of the horror stories we hear now-a-days. It was truly a blast to go to work every day. Boy, do I miss those days. Love ya, Chappy! Thanks for everything!

Chappy prowling the sidelines.

I met a ton of wonderful people at UND, great head coaches, assistant coaches, but even better people. We were winning many games and having a lot of fun. I was a Graduate Assistant for two years, then got hired on as an assistant coach for another year. After one year, I was offered a paid internship for the University of Nebraska football team, and I moved down in May. Chappy ended up leaving UND in July, and I got called back to become the Head Strength Coach at UND. Of course, I was 26 at the time and thought I was good enough to be capable of this. Looking back sometimes, I wonder if I'd have been better off bouncing around as an assistant for a while and learning to coach under a bunch of different people. But then I see those that have, and all they know is what their boss showed them.  They have not developed their own coaching philosophy, and they will not veer from what their mentors did. I was thrown into the fire with a solid background, but I was fortunate to be able to learn and try things and see what works and what does not.

However, it was a chance to be a Head Coach and do my own thing. It was a chance to work with one of the premiere hockey teams in the country and a fantastic women's basketball program. But most of all, when Dale Lennon, Head Football Coach at UND calls, you go. Because you will never get a chance to work with a better man. You get a chance to meet many good people when you grow up in Montana and work in North Dakota for 7 years, but you will never meet a better person than Coach Lennon.

I was afforded a front row seat to watch him lead young men. Coaching them to never be too high or too low, coaching toughness, letting the assistant coaches do their jobs, and keeping it all in perspective and fun, leading by example on how to be a family man – looking back, it was just a pleasure. The culture he established was something to behold. I have been around many head coaches over the years, and he may be the only one that never changed, one bit, when things were going bad. I have always said that pressure and stress does weird things to people. Coaches change when things go bad. They can become temperamental, become a completely different person; they may start pointing fingers and blaming others, or they may flat-out throw people under the bus. They push the panic button and become reactive, instead of sticking to their principles and core philosophies (if they have any). My staff and I have seen this, and have been on the receiving end a lot over the years. 

I was around Dale Lennon for what amounted to almost 10 years (I left UND in 2006 for University of Montana, then rejoined him at Southern Illinois University in 2008), and I never saw him do this one single time. Never saw him flinch. Not once. And we went through a few rough years together. He gets my utmost respect. We played numerous rounds of golf together and shared many conversations and cigars on his deck. Dale, thanks for all you did for me and for showing me the way. I could not have asked for a better mentor and example as a young coach. 

I guess at this point I would be remiss if I did not thank my parents. My mother is an educator.  I got my teaching background and thirst for knowledge and learning from her. She is also the kindest person you will ever meet and taught us to treat people the right way, I think this stuck and helped in this journey. As for my Dad, I got my love of sports and the weight room, my work ethic, taking pride in your work, and doing it right the first time from him. In fact, my first memory of a weight room was getting my finger smashed in a Universal machine leg press when he took me along to one of his workouts at the local college’s weight room. Not sure how old I was, probably around 7 or 8. Needless to say, that left a mark. They both encouraged me to follow my passion. My Dad was a big influence when I was deciding to pursue this career path instead of something more stable and lucrative. They never even blinked when I told them that I was moving to North Dakota to work for $3,000 a year. Not when I took my first full time job at $17,000 a year, not when I picked up and moved halfway across the country time and time again, not even when I missed family weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and funerals. Thanks, Mom and Dad, for the unconditional love and support. I could not have done it without you. 

Enter Starting Strength

Well, back to the book. Due to all the influences in my career I have mentioned to this point, I was solid in my philosophy of Olympic lifts and basic strength. Trying to figure everything out, I went through phases like all young coaches. I even attended Mike Boyle's Functional Strength Coach 1 in Boston (where he acknowledges in the intro that we (UND) were bigger and stronger and physically kicked their butts that year in hockey, a highlight of my young career), and went through my Boyle phase. I mean really, to the point where I put Keiser functional trainers in my weight room in 2008. However, I have always had the basics in there too. We always cleaned, snatched, squatted, and bench pressed... heavy. 

As I read and learned, I became a big fan of Jim Wendler and Elite Fitness Systems. I love his writings, they just appealed to me. Squats, deadlifts, presses, cleans, simple accessories like chins and rows, start light, progress slow, balance, set PRs (sound familiar?). I was on the EFS site and reading the Q&A, and Jim reviews Starting Strength: A Simple and Practical Guide For Coaching Beginners by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore. I was an avid reader at the time and tried to find good training material, which is hard to do. I ordered the book that day. I got it, started it, and became absolutely immersed and mesmerized. I felt like I had found the answer, the missing piece. 

jared nessland coaches the squat

It just made too much sense. How can someone read this book and not change their technique, or their programming? You see, I am an ISTJ personality type, or the Logistician. “Logisticians don’t make many assumptions, preferring instead to analyze their surroundings, check their facts, and arrive at practical courses of action.” “ISTJs trust the proven method….” “They are logical and methodical, and often enjoy tasks that require them to use step-by-step reasoning to solve a problem.” You can see why I was drawn to this book. 

I messed around with it on myself – I don't think we implemented much with the players at SIU at the time. I left North Dakota for the University of Montana in 2006, and then left for SIU to rejoin Coach Lennon in 2008. I ended up taking the Sacramento State job in September of 2011. The Blue Book came out in November, and I got it right away. Page 1, I was hooked again. It is the best first page of any book I have ever read. Everything just makes sense. I jumped head first, all in. I picked up and read all Rip’s books, Mean Ole Mister Gravity, Strong Enough?, and Practical Programming for Strength Training. I still think Strong Enough? is a gem and does not get enough love. 

We went all in with the Starting Strength method with our teams at Sac State. We ended up hosting a seminar in January 2013. My assistant, Tom DiStasio, and I worked closely together on how best to manipulate the programming to fit the time and the needs of college athletes, and came up with a system that works pretty well. 

They talk about paradigm shifts in training. I always thought that was just BS. Nevertheless, this was mine. I often tell my assistants that I have ruined their careers. I exposed them to Starting Strength; they read it, tried it, learned it, understood it, saw that it works, etc. and were sold. The problem is that nobody else is, and they don't want to be. Hard. Simple. Effective. That doesn't work in modern college athletics. Well, it does work, every time, if you are allowed to do it, but we are not. 

College strength coaches have more bosses than you can shake a stick at. They don't want hard, simple, and effective. Coaches want easy, complicated, and effective. Well, that combination does not exist. The SS back squat technique is foreign, so it must be wrong. If someone gets hurt, it must be that, or the deadlifts. Sets of 5 put way too much muscle on the females, so they want 10s and 12s (yeah, try to understand that one). “It was not muscle, coach; it was the dining hall and a 6-pack of beer 4 nights a week. You see how her face went from oval to circle-shape? That is not from the weight room.” 

It is damn near impossible to implement the program to any extent in our setting, unless you've got thick skin, unlimited patience, and a desire to continually explain, educate, and compromise. Well, I do not, not anymore. Training kids that don't want to be there (not all, definitely had some great ones), dealing with coaches that for some ungodly reason do not want their teams to train too hard, the stress, the headaches, and everything else that comes with it, just are not worth it anymore. 

Nearing the End 

I was at my wits end after summer football training in 2018. I knew I didn't really want to do this a whole lot longer, but I wasn't sure what else I would do. What does a strength coach do that doesn’t strength coach anymore? In fact, I'd asked a few friends at the national conference how long they were going to keep going, or if they had thought of getting out. To a man, each of them replied, “I don't know what I'd do.” This is a sad part of our profession. I got to the point where I occasionally looked for jobs on or the state website, completely out of the field. I had 8 years in the California system; maybe just get a state job and punch the clock for the next decade or two until retirement. A job that you clock in, clock out, and leave work at the office started to sound somewhat nice. However, I am still a coach and teacher at heart. 

Then the “100 Gyms in 5 Years” article came out. Not long after that, there was an email from Nick that some guy named Jay Livsey in Denver wants to hire an SSC. I shot them an email that day. I met Jay in January 2018 at the seminar in San Diego just by chance; did not know he was going to be there. He was even staying in my hotel. We spent a few hours and a couple of drinks each night getting to know each other. This was a guy I can go to work for. My goal when I started out coaching was to work at the University of Colorado. Being from Montana, I have always been intrigued by the possibility of living in Colorado.  Beauty, mountains, four seasons, and milder weather sounds like heaven to me. 

After a lot of back and forth and soul searching I end up accepting the position. It's hard to give up the only thing you have known and all the security that comes from a state job. But when you're staying in a job you no longer enjoy as you once did, you have gotten complacent. It is hard to admit, but how can you give your all to a job when you don't get the same in return? When you have to fight about everything from hiring practices, to programming, to the technical execution of the exercises by people who were Business or Government or English majors? That when you ask them specifically what you should do, they defer to you, the expert in the field – they have no idea what they want to do, they just know they don't want to do it your way. This can create resentment after an extended period of time.  

This is why it's a young man's game: not yet sold on a philosophy, and much more likely to play give and take. Therefore, it was getting to be about time to go. It's hard to step out of your comfort zone and into the unknown, but at the same time it's exciting to find another direction for your career that may be more enjoyable than the one you are leaving. I needed to follow my heart and go somewhere more in line with my philosophies and values. 

It was quite a leap of faith, leaving the security, but getting paid your worth, not working the excessive crazy hours, and the idea of training people exactly the way you want to train them, training clients that actually want to be there is exciting. When I see what SS Austin and Kathy Grace are doing, this excites me. Or watching Doris and the Westminster crew. That is life changing stuff! 

Our influence at the college level is often overstated, in my opinion. However, with the aforementioned people, their coaches are literally changing their lives. It will challenge me and make me a better coach, on Day 1. It is a big leap of faith, but what's the alternative? Keep going down the same road, becoming more miserable? I have always said that if you don't like your situation, leave! If a kid is unhappy at the school, leave!  If the assistant coach is miserable working for his boss, leave! Yes, sometimes it is easier said than done, but it's now time to listen to my own advice. This is why I respect Jim Steel so much, not only for his wonderful writings, but for his resignation after dealing with the same shit.  

Changing Course

So I’m sitting here, staring at this 1st edition book, reflecting. How can one single damn book pretty much change the course of a career? If you had told me in 1999 when I started coaching that one book would change the course of my career, I would tell you that you were crazy. Reading this book in 2006 indirectly or even directly lead me to packing my things and moving to Denver in 2019. It lead me to being unwilling to work in a setting that I've worked in for 20 years, a profession that I loved and thought was the greatest job ever.  However, Steel is correct; times have changed. Picking up that book and the aftermath of having done so has made me smarter, more critical, and a much better coach and programmer.  It has exposed me to many other good people I have learned from that I may not have otherwise. It is an opportunity to go to work for and represent a brand that has, whether they know it or not, given so much to me. I love what they stand for, and I can get behind this: The "Corporate Culture" of The Aasgaard Company

So Rip, thank you. As much as you bash college strength coaches, your work has had an immense influence on this one. I have no idea why it has not had the same influence on more. Our profession would be a better place if it did. So thanks for your work and influence. I will see you at the grand opening in Denver, and I owe you a beer! Cheers. 

In closing, I would like to thank all the athletes that bought in to the weight room, and who taught me more than I taught them over the years. It was truly a pleasure and you will be missed. I would also like to thank all my current and former assistant coaches. If I got anything right as a Head Coach, it was hiring great people and letting them do their job. They made me look a lot better than I probably was. Thank you to: Tom DiStasio, Nate Baukol, Adam Johnson, Joe Fondale, Mike Silbernagel, Bo Berglund, Quinn Peterson, John Rich, Alan Weber, Becky Kimball, Maureen Khairallah, Brett Bartholomew, Chas Ossenheimer, Trevor Loos, Justin Cortez, Erin Wick, Kyle Aber, Amanda Sheppard, Josh Jirgal, Jennifer Pfohl, Tyler Kessler, and the late Jeff Law (RIP buddy, miss you). 

They say it takes a village. As I said, I am not very sentimental or emotional, and I don't often express myself well. My appreciation is hard to write down. Most of the people in the article will know this about me. However, I’ve thought a lot about them as my path as a collegiate strength coaching is coming to an end, and there are too many to reach out to individually. So this article will have to do. This one’s for you!

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